Help:Using Wikipedia for mathematics self-study

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Wikipedia provides one of the more prominent resources on the Web for factual information about contemporary mathematics, with over 20,000 articles on mathematical topics. It is natural that many readers use Wikipedia for the purpose of self-study in mathematics and its applications. Some readers will be simultaneously studying mathematics in a more formal way, while others will rely on Wikipedia alone. There are certain points that need to be borne in mind by anyone using Wikipedia for mathematical self-study, in order to make the best use of what is here, perhaps in conjunction with other resources.

General points[edit]

  • Wikipedia is a reference site, not a website directly designed to teach any topic.
  • Wikipedia may supplement a textbook by explaining key concepts, but it does not replace a textbook.
  • Wikipedia is organized as hypertext, meaning that the information you require may not be on one page, but spread over many pages.
  • In technical subjects, the material may also be technical: Wikipedia has no restriction on the depth of coverage. The lead section of each article is supposed to give a summary accessible to the general reader.
  • Wikipedia is a work in progress. Some of our articles are highly polished, while others are in a rougher state. The Wikipedia model relies on volunteers to edit articles, and you're invited to help. All help is welcomed and greatly appreciated.

Particular points[edit]

Studying mathematics from a reference source is not ideal. Unless you consult Wikipedia to answer a specific question, it is not reasonable to expect instant results.

Mathematics textbooks are conventionally built up carefully, one chapter at a time, explaining what mathematicians would call the prerequisites before moving to a new topic. For example, you may think you can study Chapter 10 of a book before Chapter 9, but reading a few pages may then show you that you are wrong. Because Wikipedia's pages are not ordered in the same way, it may be less clear what the prerequisites are, and where to find them, if you are struggling with a new concept.

There is no quick way around the need for prerequisite knowledge. When King Ptolemy asked for an easier way of learning mathematics, Euclid is famously said to have replied, "there is no royal road to geometry". Some background reading is expected when learning a new mathematical subject, and different readers will have greatly different needs regarding introductory material. Therefore:

  • Be prepared to look at related pages to establish context;
  • Follow wikilinks for unfamiliar terms, to orient yourself;
  • To find additional related topics, look under the "See also" header or use the article's categories listed at the bottom.

Omissions from the encyclopedia[edit]

Mathematics is something that is done rather than read. A mathematics textbook will contain many exercises, and doing them is an essential part of learning mathematics. Wikipedia does not include exercises; by design, Wikipedia is an encyclopedic reference, not a textbook.

When it comes to more advanced topics, mathematics is developed, and largely hangs together, by means of the large body of quite formal proofs that exist in the mathematical literature. Wikipedia does not attempt to condense all of these proofs into encyclopedic form, for reasons that are discussed at length in another essay. Wikipedia assembles the facts uncovered by mathematical investigation, and the definitions underlying the abstract theories. In common with other mathematical encyclopedias, it omits most proofs.

Although learning mathematics involves memorization of the sort of factual knowledge that Wikipedia provides, memorization is not enough to master the field. To become a mathematician, you must acquire the skills of creating proofs and doing calculations for yourself, to internalize the material. Therefore, you must go beyond the outline a Wikipedia article can supply. We hope that Wikipedia articles can provide a good starting point for the process, along with a reference for topics you have already learned.

Caveats[edit]

Remember that any source may contain errors, so do not put too much trust into a single account. Verify proofs and calculations yourself. Because anyone can edit Wikipedia, you can correct any errors you find; this can be a very powerful learning experience.

There are some mathematical concepts for which different authors use different definitions. For example, some authors count zero as a natural number while others do not. These differences can affect the way that mathematical theorems are stated. Therefore, double-check the definitions in each article to see whether they match those you are accustomed to.

Ways to use Wikipedia[edit]

The main way to use Wikipedia is to search for an article on a topic that interests you. Follow the wikilinks to articles that explain any terms you don't understand or want to explore further. In addition:

  • A well-written Wikipedia article will cite references, which you can use to expand your knowledge further and check that the Wikipedia article is correct.
  • Talk pages (the "Discussion" tab at the top of article pages) are the best way to raise queries about the content of a particular article.
  • The mathematics reference desk is useful if you have a question and don't know where to look up the answer.
  • Explore the category system.
  • The mathematics portal is a good "way in" to mathematics articles on Wikipedia.

If you are in doubt, ask at the mathematics reference desk. No one on Wikipedia is going to do your math homework for you ... but if you ask the right question they might point you to some information that will enable you to do it for yourself.

Sister projects[edit]

For those engaged in self-study, some of Wikipedia's sister projects may help. These have different and definite purposes:

  • Wikibooks is a collection of collectively-written textbooks;
  • Wikisource is a repository of free texts of all sorts;
  • Wikiversity is a collection of teaching materials;
  • Simple English Wikipedia is a version of Wikipedia that is more accessible for both children and adults who are learning English.